When Lorraine Clark walks into Grace Church in Vineyard Haven on the morning of Dec. 17, Christmas officially begins.
There, packed high to the ceiling and filling almost every available space will be over 250 large, white bags - each one stuffed with dozens of wrapped gifts. Each bag will be marked with its own number, and soon people will trickle in to claim them.
And for another year, Ms. Clark, along with Kerry Alley, will be there to hand them out, once again assuming the role of Santa.
But this is more than just distributing gifts. Every number on every bag represents a child and Christmas dreams come true.
"It's always special," she said this week. "It's why we do it. It's what Red Stocking is all about."
Ms. Clark and Mr. Alley are longtime volunteers with the Red Stocking Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides food, clothing and toys to children, from infants to eighth grade, in families with financial need.
Every year, over 200 Island families look to Red Stocking for help, and this year, an estimated 250 children will benefit from its volunteers' hard work.
"It can be a very hard time for families that are struggling financially," Ms. Clark said, "and buying toys and clothes can be a burden. We try to ease that burden."
With Thanksgiving weekend here, and Christmas not far behind, Ms. Clark hopes Islanders will think about those children.
"Right now, we're seeming to be doing well, we seem to be on track," she said of the fund's contributions. "But like past years, we know the demand will increase as Christmas gets closer, so we are hoping the donations increase as well."
Red Stocking has assisted families since 1938, when Mrs. Harris M. Crist filled six stockings full of presents to give to needy children. Throughout the years, thousands of Island children have awakened to Red Stocking toys under the tree.
"This year we have heard from new families," she said. "There are a lot of single parents that just can't do it alone."
Red Stocking focuses on buying specific gifts based on wish lists provided by the parents, Ms. Clark said. The fund spends most of the donations on clothes and food, including gift certificates for holiday dinners. Last Friday, the fund gave away more than $6,000 in gift certificates for Thanksgiving dinner.
Mr. Alley points to the annual Harley Rider's Toys for Tots run in November as a major contributor. The event's proceeds make up a third of Red Stocking's budget needs, and this year's run brought in $18,500, said Mr. Alley, who shares Red Stocking's organizational duties with Ms. Clark.
"Without them we'd have an immense hole," he said. "As usual they came back with their tremendous support."
"We don't spend any of the money we have raised on toys, only food and clothing," he added. "Other individuals and organizations raise money for toys, or just donate them directly."
This year, there is a special fund earmarked specifically for toys in honor of Ida (Buzzy) Gardner, a devoted volunteer who died in July.
"It is very helpful, especially in buying gifts for some of the older kids who have more specific tastes," he said.
Another of Red Stocking's fundraisers - the annual chowder contest - will be held next Saturday, Dec. 4, from noon to 2 p.m. This year's competition will be held at a new location under a tent in front of Bob's Pizza in Vineyard Haven.
"We wanted to make the contest more visible," said Jeff Kristal, president of the Tisbury Business Association. "It is a great space to try out."
Cardi's furniture has donated a $400 gift certificate to Red Stocking which will be raffled off at the chowder contest.
Anyone interested in donating to the Red Stocking Fund can contact Mr. Alley at 508-693-2324 or Lorraine Clark at 508-693-0725.